Coping with Change and Uncertainty in the Time of COVID-19

I often work with people who are facing disruption and massive change in their organisations and industries. Sometimes the change could have been predicted, sometimes it couldn’t. It always causes stress and anxiety.

I’ve never seen anything as disruptive as this new coronavirus and the illness it causes, COVID-19. But some of the principles for dealing with uncertainty and change still apply. So I’ll share with you a process for dealing with it.

I’m not an epidemiologist or other healthcare professional, so I definitely won’t be offering any medical advice here. Instead, this is a process for dealing with uncertainty. It won’t give you certainty or guarantees, but it will give you more clarity and (I hope) confidence.

We like to know what’s Safe and Unsafe.

First, there’s something we do all the time, but it’s so ingrained we usually don’t even know we’re doing it: As we go through life, we classify things as “safe” or “unsafe”.

Most of the things we do every day are (generally) safe: turning on the lights, driving to work, eating out, and so on.

We also know some things are unsafe: touching exposed wires, crossing the road without checking for traffic, drink driving, and so on.

We like to think we’re pretty good at dividing our world into Safe vs Unsafe:

We keep doing what’s safe, we avoid what’s unsafe, and everything is fine! Right?

Unfortunately, that’s not the way the world works.

In addition to these two neat categories, there’s a grey, murky area between them – the Unknown:

We don’t like the unknown. It might be safe, it might be unsafe, but we just don’t know!

When we face the unknown, we usually do one of two things:

  • If we know what the unknown is (even if we don’t know how to deal with it), we might tackle it, but with appropriate safeguards – often with help from other people. When we first learned to drive, we learned from an experienced driver; if we get promoted to a new job, we can ask others for advice; if we move to a new city, we make friends with locals.
  • If we know where the unknown is, we might choose to avoid it. If you don’t ever want to go skydiving, it’s pretty easy to stay out of situations where you have to do it.

But the real problem comes when we can’t do either of these things. You can’t stand and fight it because you don’t know what it is, and you can’t flee because you don’t know where it is.

That’s what we’re facing now with this new coronavirus and COVID-19.

It’s still in its early days, so nobody really knows how it will play out around the world before it settles and stabilises. And it’s already spread into the community, so some of the things we assumed were safe – like flying, going to concerts, and shaking hands – have now moved into that grey, murky Unknown. What’s more, even if you don’t catch COVID-19 yourself, you can still get caught in its net by being forced into isolation (which creates its own disruption).

That’s why we’re seeing so much stress, anxiety, and irrational behaviour.

There’s no sure-fire “fix” for this, but there are some things we – as ordinary individuals – can do to deal with it. Here’s a seven-step process you can follow to act with more clarity and confidence.

1. Accept the unknown.

We’re better placed than at any time in history to deal with viruses, but this one is still largely unknown – even for the world’s leading experts in this area. So, if you’re feeling some stress and anxiety about it, the first step is to accept that as a normal part of being human.

2. Listen to the experts.

You can reduce some uncertainty by learning more about it – but only trust the experts. It’s not difficult to find appropriate advice from qualified professionals and other credible sources. It’s also not difficult to find sensationalist news on Facebook or in some parts of the media. Make the right choice.

3. Assess your own risk.

We all have to assess our own risk, based on how this could affect us. So, based on the relevant information (see the previous point), make well-informed decisions about how you will act. Of course, also discuss this with family, friends, and others who will be affected by your decisions.

4. Act!

Even though you’re still facing some unknowns, decide how you’re going to act now, based on the best available evidence. Keep monitoring the situation for changes, but don’t keep second-guessing yourself.

5. Have a Plan B.

When my brother-in-law Neil was coaching me in tennis, he said, “You’re only as good as your second serve”. That also applies here. You can do everything “right” and still get caught. That doesn’t mean your plan was flawed; it’s simply a consequence of dealing with the unknown.

Create a backup plan so you can be confident with your Plan A. Your backup plan is not for the worst-case scenario! Instead, it’s a plan for what to do if something (not everything!) goes wrong.

6. Share this process.

Encourage others to follow this process to improve their own decision-making. Their circumstances are different, so they will probably make different decisions than you. But at least they will be making better-informed decisions, and that’s better for all of us.

7. Be compassionate.

Finally, be kinder, more generous, and more compassionate towards others – especially if you see them doing irrational things. It’s easy to criticise people who come to work when they are obviously unwell, share sensationalist social media posts, and hoard toilet paper. But keep in mind they are all doing what they think is best – in unprecedented circumstances – to make things “safe” again.

There’s never been a better time to remember this:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

How will YOU stand up and take the lead?

Make no mistake: With COVID-19, things will almost certainly get worse before they get better. The purpose of this plan is not to turn uncertainty into certainty, but to give you a process to act with greater clarity and more confidence.

It’s in uncertain times like this that true leadership shines. It’s up to all of us to be leaders in our lives, and be an example to others.


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